This is a disaster. The bottom has fallen out, and the results are as bad as you can imagine. We haven’t seen this kind of academic achievement crisis in living memory.
That’s Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, responding to the new report from Curriculum Associates (CA), which produces iReady diagnostic tests and curricula used by 25% of American school districts. This analysis, the fourth in a series of reports that examines the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic since schools first closed in March 2020, finds that younger elementary school students have yet to catch up to their pre-pandemic on-grade level performance in reading while upper elementary and middle school students suffered less loss. Math outcomes are worse: the percentage of students who, pre-pandemic, were on grade level has not risen, even among older students.
“Demographic data results show that some of the historical inequities pre-dating the pandemic persist today: fewer students in schools serving mostly Black and Latino students than White students and fewer students in schools located in lower-income zip codes than higher-income zip codes are starting this school year on grade level.”
The report itself, “Understanding Student Learning Insights from Fall 2021,” dives into granular detail for the nine million students who took i-Ready Diagnostic’s criterion-referenced grade-level placement tests. (CA didn’t use scores of students who took the tests at home, only those who took the tests in school; researchers note that students who attended school last fall were more likely to be White and live in rural and suburban parts of midwest and southern states.) Outcomes are disaggregated for race (Black, Latino, White) and median household income (less that $50,000, $50,000-$75,000, more than $75,000).
Here is a summary of the findings:
- Fewer elementary and middle school students are starting the 2021 school year reading and doing math on grade level than in the three years before the pandemic. Compared to historical averages, fewer second and third graders were at grade level in reading (six and five percentage points lower, respectively), and many more students performed below grade level (nine and seven percentage points higher, respectively).
- The majority of students experienced some academic setbacks, but the pandemic is not affecting all students in the same way. The students already behind in reading and math before the pandemic experienced the most unfinished learning. The percentage of older students (grades 4–8) who are on grade level is close to pre-pandemic levels.
- Fewer students are prepared to learn sophisticated mathematics skills, with more unfinished learning in Grades 4–6. Fewer students in fifth grade were performing at grade level in the fall of 2021 (10 percentage points lower), with more students below grade level (10 percentage points higher).
- Unfinished learning is greater for Black and Latino students in both reading and mathematics than for White students. Schools serving majority Black and Latino students saw almost double the amount of unfinished learning in third grade reading and math as schools serving majority White students. The percentage of third grade students who are not on grade level in schools serving majority Black students grew by 17 percentage points, compared to six points in schools serving majority White students. In schools serving majority Latino students, the percentage of students who are behind grew by 14 percentage points. Third grade is a critical year for literacy, as children at this age are still learning to read, whereas from fourth grade on students are reading to learn. This amount of unfinished learning for students of color is an urgent call for intervention. Other grade levels experienced unfinished learning that matched these trends, though not at the same scale as the early grades.
- Unfinished learning is greater for students in lower-income communities than for students in higher-income communities. Unfinished learning in third grade reading increased by six percentage points in lower-income schools, compared to four percentage points in higher-income schools. Declines in third grade mathematics were even across all income groups.
Other commentators have noted that students restricted to remote instruction for longer periods of time suffered more unfinished learning than those who returned to in-school learning earlier. Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, says that white families were more likely to have access to in-person classes and more likely to choose it for their children. Black and Latino families in many cases had “fewer options and less faith that schools would protect their children from the virus.”
In addition, wealthier families were more likely to hire tutors or enroll their children in private schools offering in-person instruction, like these parents in South Orange-Maplewood who partnered with three other families to start “Garage School University.” They told me that other families (without fully insulated and refurbished garages) were enrolling their children in private schools. Far Hills Country Day School was particularly popular, with a long wait list despite tuition of about $40,000 per year.
There is money out there (if not enough to enroll in Far Hills): the federal government has infused $200 billion into K-12 education to help districts deal with unfinished learning, especially for students who are traditionally disenfranchised. Yet it’s unclear how proactive education leaders will be in allocating those funds so teachers can finish teaching and students can finish learning. After all, there is no shortage of unfinished learning-deniers: Hugely influential Diane Ravitch claims “learning loss is a hoax.” United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz told Los Angeles Magazine, “our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival.”
Are our kids, particularly low-income students of color, really “OK”? Is unfinished learning really a “hoax”? We know better. And so now it’s on communities to insist that school leaders heed the researchers at CA and “remain laser-focused on maintaining high expectations for all students, providing a path to accelerated learning, and offering ample opportunities for all students to engage with grade-level content.”
Indeed, that’s the only path forward for our children.